Private Deputies' Business. - Civil Service Cost-of-Living Bonus.

Wednesday, 10 June 1931

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 39 No. 1

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[143] Debate resumed on the following motion:

“That in view of the discontent prevalent amongst the lower grades in the Civil Service, the Dáil is of opinion that the Executive Council should set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate and report on the present method of computation of the cost-of-living bonus and its application to Civil Servants' salaries and wages.”— (Deputy Anthony).

Mr. Anthony: Information on Richard Sidney Anthony  Zoom on Richard Sidney Anthony  On the 4th of March I moved this motion. On that occasion, I think, I occupied something like three-quarters of an hour when speaking to the motion. I do not want to repeat the arguments I used then, but I wish to emphasise one or two points and to remind the Deputies, because of the time that has elapsed, of one or two salient features in that discussion. I pointed out then that it was essential, if we were to have a satisfied or contented Civil Service, that there should be a cessation of these cuts in salaries which have been in operation by way of a reduction in the cost-of-living bonus, pending an inquiry into their method of application. I pointed out on that occasion that whilst you had an index figure, perhaps at 70 or 80, that that in no way represented the real cost of living so far as it applied to the civil servant. I might have then developed that particular phase of my argument and easily proved that that index figure did not in any way represent the true cost of living in this country. For that reason I stressed then, as I do stress now, the fact that these cuts should cease until such time as we have an inquiry into the method of their application. I want to remind the House also that this cost-of-living bonus came into operation in 1920 as a means of partially compensating the civil servants for the increase in the cost of living. It was acknowledged at that time that the cost of living had gone up very considerably, and even though the civil servants to an extent enjoyed a kind of relative prosperity, because of the [144] economic conditions operating at that time, because of the fact that the index cost of living then represented the position more accurately than the index cost of living does now, they did not cavil at its method of application. But other reasons have operated to make that index not a true representation of the cost of living of the civil servant.

There is one section of that service to which the application of this cost-of-living figure applies with rather disastrous effect. I refer to the lower paid civil servant. We all know that a ten per cent. reduction whilst it might mean a very slight reduction in the case of a higher paid Civil Servant becomes a very serious factor indeed in the lives of those in the service of the State who have basic salaries of, say, £150 and under per annum. It may appear to some persons a very small reduction indeed to suggest that they should submit to a five, or six or ten per cent. cut in their salaries, but at the beginning of the month when those civil servants receive their salaries that reduction takes on quite a different complexion. To the man, especially the man with a wife and family to keep, with a fairly high rent to pay, this reduction represents a very serious matter.

I submit again as I submitted before that this index figure is not a true indication of the civil service cost of living. I have knowledge and I am sure every Deputy in this House shares that knowledge with me that many of those young and rather lower paid civil servants have embarked in house purchase schemes for reasons which are obvious to most of us. We know that it was difficult in Dublin for the young married civil servant to procure a house to house himself and his wife and family, if he had any, in any kind of decency or respectability. Such a civil servant found that rents were most exorbitant and the only method by which he could procure reasonably comfortable shelter for himself and his family was to purchase a house on the instalment system whereby he had to deposit a certain amount either with a utility [145] building society or some other commercial or enterprising people who were prepared to sell him a house on the instalment system. Many of those civil servants embarked on those house purchase schemes, and the annual increments to which they are entitled are completely negatived by those reductions in their cost-of-living bonus year after year.

There is an instability, there is an uncertainty present in the minds of all those civil servants to whom I refer. That is not, I submit, a healthy or a proper state of affairs to exist in the Civil Service of this, or, for that matter, any other country. I emphasised and gave many figures to demonstrate that the civil servant in this country was not the pampered individual that some people on public boards and some representative people in this country think he is, or at least represent him to be. For instance, an officer of the Civil Service with the combined wage—that is to say, prewar wage and bonus-amounting in March, 1921, to £5 1s. 6d. per week, has now a combined wage of £3 6s. 1d. That represents a loss of £1 15s. 5d. per week. It cannot be said that such a servant is the pampered pet of the Free State. Neither can it be said with any degree of truth, equity or justice that he should be counted on as the faithful servant of the State. It is very poor encouragement, indeed, to the young man or woman who has entered the service of this State by open competition to be told at the end of a number of years that, instead of improving his position, that position is gradually to be worsened. It is quite manifest that their emoluments are gradually lessening. I say that, having regard to the facts which I stated a moment or two ago, that their annual increments are negatived by the reduction brought about by the reduced cost-of-living bonus. Can we as a State expect all that should be demanded and is demanded of the servants of the State—the greatest amount of trustworthiness, of probity, of honesty, and of loyalty if you like to the State from those who are year after year reduced in their income? They are reduced in their cost-of-living bonus, and this works out a [146] reduction in their wages and salaries. Not only that, but these civil servants are faced year after year with still further reductions. There appears to be no finality to it.

As a matter of fact, it is strongly rumoured that instead of something good accruing as a result of this motion a further reduction will take place in the cost-of-living bonus of these deserving citizens of the State. These civil servants claim that their present financial position is such that they are unable to afford any further reduction. Whilst I believe that the official mind frequently dominates the actions of Ministers, at least that they pay perhaps more regard to certain highly-placed officials, to their judgment and advice, than they as Ministers should, yet I appeal to the Minister in this case to use his own commonsense and sense of fair play.

I am not going to use an argument that has been commonly used about the salaries of Ministers. I believe in the main they are worth their salaries, but I want to know how would they feel if, every year, they were told that because of this mythical figure, arrived at by a process that I cannot understand, because of an artificial reduction in the cost of living represented by that figure, they as Ministers must receive less by way of salary. I would be the first to defend the salaries of Ministers, because I believe that the labourer is worthy of his hire, but I want to see that generally applied. I say with all the seriousness that I can command that this has caused an amount of discontent in the service. A lower paid civil servant, a struggling young married man, may have engaged in such schemes as I have mentioned. He may have undertaken a house purchase scheme, or perhaps, following the advice of Ministers, been prudent and foreseeing enough to insure himself and his wife and family. He may have made provision, acting again on sound advice, for the future of his children in the way of education and so on. How is he, under the circumstances I have related, to continue to fulfil his obligations in that way if he is faced with reduction in salary year after year, instead of feeling that he could look forward, as one year succeeded [147] another, to an increase in salary, up to and including the time when he would have reached the maximum in his particular grade? Instead of looking forward to an increase in salary, he is now a disgruntled person, who feels that the whole Dáil, the whole Executive at any rate, are up in arms against him, and want to deprive him of what he considers to be his rights. Surely, in view of what I said on a previous occasion in this House, and what I have only now attempted to summarise as briefly as I possibly could, if there is a necessity for economy, and there may be certain economies possible, why should those economies operate in such a way on the lower-paid members of the service? If we are to economise in that way, let us begin at the top and work down. Again, I say that I do not want to be interpreted as suggesting that we want to reduce the salary of any Minister. At the same time, I submit that these civil servants have contributed already more than their quota to these economies. The lower grades of the service in particular, I think, have been victimised in a very cruel way, and there appears to be no indication from the Minister for Finance that there will not be further victimisation. I suggest it is a matter that the Minister and the House should consider very seriously before they inflict further injury on these lower paid civil servants.

What does this motion ask for? Does it ask for anything extraordinary? Does it ask that these men should be paid more than a living wage? I suggest it does not. It simply asks the Executive Council to examine the position. It is in very plain and simple English. It asks that a commission of inquiry should be set up to investigate and report on the present methods of computation of the cost-of-living bonus and its application to civil servants' salaries and wages. I am anxious to know what objection, if any, can be raised by the Minister, or by any Deputy who has any spark of humanity left in him, against such a motion as this. It asks merely for an inquiry. In a word it says, let us [148] examine. That is all that is asked. It does not even ask that a stop should be put to the system which creates such ill effects, such dissatisfaction in the service, and which in my opinion is a most immoral practice on the part of the Department—the continued infliction on the lower paid members of the civil service of a reduction in the cost-of-living bonus. If the Minister came to the House and asked us to examine proposals, some of which might not be acceptable to any of us, I feel that we are liberal-minded enough to say that we would not condemn these proposals without first examining them. But, apparently, the attitude of the Department of Finance in this and other allied matters is one of the jack-boot.

Let us consider for a moment the position of civil servants in relation to organisation. And when I say organisation I do not refer to it in the way in which the term is used in connection with trades unions for instance. I refer to a combination, if you like, of the civil servants who believe, when they have a grievance, that the right place and the right atmosphere in which to have it examined is by the method of a representative council.

But here again we find that this method of expressing their views is largely denied to civil servants. I say largely denied, because very likely the Minister will tell me there is such an organisation in existence, and there is a means or an avenue through which these grievances can be examined and by which every question relating to the Civil Service can be explored and dealt with. But what is the actual position? So far that representative council is an effete body through which none but some of the brass hats of the service can get any sort of satisfaction at all. So far as the rank and file are concerned, there is no avenue of approach at all. I suggested last March, and I spoke as one with considerable experience in the matter, that the Whitley Councils in England had done a lot of useful work, and that in these matters it might be well for the Minister to examine the position with a view to ultimately taking a leaf out of their book. It was found [149] in England that in the Whitley Councils—and that is what I want to impress upon the Minister—that they had a safety-valve method of expression, and that also should be found for the Civil Service of this country through a council. Call it by any name you like, but let us have a representative council in every sense of the term, and let that word “representative” not be a misnomer.

Now we have a number of people affected by these continual cuts in this cost-of-living bonus. Postal officials, clerical officers, writing assistants, have all been affected, and unless the Minister will set up this Committee of Inquiry for which I ask, I really do not know what other avenue there is open to those people to get into direct and close personal contact, if you like, with the Department of Finance in order that their grievances may be remedied. There are something like 20,000 public servants who are affected in this way. They feel that they are being unfairly treated, and they also feel, as I feel, that the Minister should, if he is not prepared to do it himself, in co-operation with the representatives of the Civil Service, establish or set up machinery to deal with this and other kindred questions. I have complained of the cost-of-living bonus and the way it has been applied, and the severe and undoubted hardship it is to the lower grades particularly. I have suggested that it does not press so heavily on the higher paid civil servants. There are many thousands in the service who were relatively fairly well-to-do some half a dozen years ago, and who find it difficult enough to live, to pay their just demands, to pay very high house rents in Dublin and Cork and other large centres, and all those people have been very severely hit now, particularly in the case of the young married civil servants and civil servants with other responsibilities, and who, though not married, may have to keep a house, and support a mother, sisters or other dependents. The responsibilities, instead of being lessened in the case of married people particularly, have been increased. The cost of living really shows little or no reduction. [150] To-day house rents are as high, if not higher, than they were in 1920, and I can give the Minister several authentic cases in support of my statement. There has been no material change in the cost of living. Ask any housekeeper who, after all, is in the position in the household that the Minister for Finance occupies in this House. She is Chancellor of the Exchequer in her own household, and from inquiries that I have made from such people I found very little or no difference in the cost of living since 1920. Yet the cost of living index figure that is published at varying periods shows a considerable reduction. My own personal housekeeping expenses have not gone down one whit, and yet thousands of civil servants are told that because the index figure, which is arrived at by some extraordinary method of calculation, shows a reduction, then the civil servants' cost-of-living bonus must go down accordingly.

Now, I leave it to any Deputy to give me conclusive evidence to show that the cost of living is reduced to the extent represented by the cost of living index figure. Personally, I feel it has not been reduced one whit, but even if I were wrong in this respect and if it has been reduced by a few points, yet I have not met one citizen who has suggested that the cost of living has gone down to the extent represented by the cost of living index figure published here from time to time, and just as automatically as that figure appears in your official gazette, just as frequently the civil servant is reduced in his salary or wages. I want to bring back to the minds of Deputies some of the things, though not all the things, that I stated in the previous debate. I feel there are many Deputies drawn from all Parties in the House who are anxious to help in this matter.

I would like to hear an expression of opinion from Cumann na nGaedheal Deputies in that particular regard, just as I would like to hear an expression of opinion from Fianna Fáil. Of course, I know in advance what their feeling is on that matter. I want to ask Deputies on the Cumann na nGaedheal [151] Benches what do they propose to do about it, and what do they propose to say to their constituents? Apart from election propaganda, what is their opinion on this matter? What will they say to the people in the towns and villages of their constituencies about this motion? Members of the Cumann na nGaedheal Party who hail from County Cork, have told the civil servants that they are in entire sympathy with them. I would like to see that sympathy translated into practical results in this House. It is one thing to go down the country and say to the civil servants that you are in entire sympathy with their demands; to indicate to them that you think they are not treated properly by the Government.

I am not indicting the Government in this matter; I am indicting a Department of the Government, and I am endeavouring to enlist, if possible, the sympathy of the Minister. I will also have a word to say with regard to the honesty of people in the public life of our country. If a division takes place on this question—I hope that there will not be a division—the least Deputies may do is to stand by the statements they have made. I repeat that I trust there will not be a division. I do not want to use the word “compromise,” but if the Minister will merely indicate that he is prepared to make an investigation into this matter, I will be prepared to take that as a good gesture and I will be quite satisfied. I believe civil servants will be quite satisfied, too. There are more persons than the Minister and the higher permanent officials concerned in this matter; there are numerous members of Cumann na nGaedheal. I want from them a straight and honest answer to a straight and honest question. Are they going to turn down the reasonable request of large numbers of deserving men and women in this country who simply ask for an opportunity of proving their case? They are prohibited from making a case here, except some Deputy will take up the cudgels for them. It is not popular, in the sense in which we hear it translated on some occasions, to take up the cudgels on [152] behalf of civil servants. There is no phrase more frequently or more wilfully misinterpreted in this country than the phrase “cost-of-living bonus.”

Are the Cumann na nGaedheal Deputies going to turn their backs on the men and women whose case they promised to examine? Will they say to these people: “We promised you one thing in the county Cork or the county Dublin, outside Leinster House, but when we come back here we must simply obey the crack of the Party Whips because it suits the Minister and some of the higher officials?” I want to see some honesty displayed in that connection. I have no doubt that there are numbers of Cumann na Gaedheal Deputies who would be glad to have a chance to vote for this motion. I ask them to give visible evidence of the faith that is in them. Let one, two or three of them stand up in this House and ask the President or the Minister to permit a free vote on this matter. If that reasonable and reasoned request is acceded to, I hope they will act according to their consciences and they will not slavishly go into the Lobby against their own convictions. I hope they will not feel themselves compelled slavishly to obey the Party call as they did the other night and on other occasions. When the Hospitals Bill was under consideration here, although those in authority said there would be a free vote, some of the country Deputies voted against their own convictions. I mention that matter now in the hope that those same Deputies will profit by their mistake on that occasion.

If the President or the Minister agrees that there should be a free vote, I hope these members of Cumann na nGaedheal will exercise the God-given right of using their own judgment. I hope in this matter that I will get the support that I have been led to expect. I am not altogether making this request as a sort of chance shot. I have had some conversations with certain members of Cumann na nGaedheal who feel that they would like to support this motion because they have a decent sense of justice [153] and equity. Summed up in a few words, the motion asks for an examination of the position. I feel that it would be discreditable to an Irish Government to turn down such a request. If we were dealing with an alien Government, one of the greatest impeachments we could make against it would be to say that it even refused to examine a proposal.

I will again remind the Minister that one of the biggest assets the State can have and hold is a contented Civil Service. I do not want to suggest for a moment that the civil servants should be pampered or petted or spoon-fed. I do suggest that they are entitled to the fulfilment of the promises made to them. I may say, by way of illustration, that the increments that many of the lower paid civil servants are getting to-day are completely cancelled by the reductions that are made in the cost-of-living bonus.

Let me repeat an example that I gave early in the course of my speech. An officer had in salary and bonus a wage of £5 1s. 6d. a week in March, 1921, and has now been reduced to £3 6s. 1d. In other words, he has suffered a loss of 35/5 per week. I ask Cumann na nGaedheal Deputies, whether they come from the cities, towns or villages, to examine their consciences and put it to themselves whether they could be loyal servants of the State if their wages were reduced by 35/5 a week over the period to which I have referred? I appeal with confidence to every Deputy who has a sense of equity and justice to deal out that justice to a number of deserving citizens, to people who cannot make themselves vocal here, and who have to seek the only avenue open to them by getting some Deputy, Independent or otherwise, to take up their case.

The number of civil servants in Cork is relatively small. Dublin, as we know, is the heart of the Civil Service, and in Dublin they count for something—I mean by way of votes or in any way you like. I have no particular axe to grind. I am making an [154] appeal for them on the merits of the case that I put before the House on 4th March last and again to-night. I appeal again to that sense of equity and justice which the members of Cumann na nGaedheal have proclaimed time after time on public platforms. They have either to vote for this motion—I do not say this by way of threat—and carry out the promises they made to several of these civil servants throughout the country or go back dishonoured. If they fail to fulfil their promises they will go down unwept and unsung.

Mr. Davin: Information on William Davin  Zoom on William Davin  I formally second the motion.

Mr. MacEntee: Information on Seán MacEntee  Zoom on Seán MacEntee  As I listened to Deputy Anthony I thought of an advertisement which has become popular in the newspapers recently, the significant feature of which is a gentleman who is able to face both way at once, and who in doing so exclaims “Crikey! That's Shell— that was.” We had Deputy Anthony, in introducing this motion ostensibly in favour of civil servants reciting a long litany of the injustices which the civil servants in the lower ranks particularly suffer, and at the same time telling us that he did not blame the Government: he only blamed a department of the Government. He told us that if economies had to be made, then they had got to be made at the top, but that he did not want to reduce the salary of the Minister. It seemed to me, listening to the Deputy's speech, that he was really rather anxious to deprive the House of the opportunity of discussing this motion on its merits. It is upon its merits as it affects the community as a whole, and not with any special advertence to the position of any particular section or class in the community, that we on this side are supporting the motion, and are demanding that there should be an investigation and report on the present method of computing the cost of living bonus, and its application to Civil Service salaries and wages. Not only does the present cost of living index apply merely to civil servants, [155] not only does it affect inequitably and unfairly civil servants in the lower grades, but it also has its reactions in all the industrial relations between employers and employees throughout the Saorstát.

In that connection I would like to remind the House of a statement issued by the Department of Industry and Commerce on 23rd August, 1922, in relation to this report. The conclusions set forth in the report, this announcement declares, “represent the closest approximation which is practicable to the cost of maintaining in particular months of the current year as compared with July, 1914, the same standard of living for a family dependent on wage earnings in places with 500 or more inhabitants. The inquiry applied to the whole of Ireland and its basis is, therefore, broad enough to be reasonably dependable for any practicable purpose to which a calculation as to changes in the cost of living can be usefully applied.” First of all it would appear to me that the fact that this inquiry was based on the conditions existing throughout the whole of Ireland rather than on the conditions which exist in those centres where the largest numbers of civil servants are employed, and have to live would of itself render the present cost of living index an unfair, uncertain and inaccurate way of maintaining the possibly inadequate standard of living which civil servants in the lower grades enjoyed prior to August, 1914.

The very fact that the basis is too general, is too widespread, would render the present cost of living index an unfair, inaccurate and unjust way of regulating the salaries and wages in the Civil Service in accordance with the cost of living of that particular section of the community. Let me remind the House that the present cost of living index was instituted as a result of a report originally made to the Chairman of the Provisional Government in Ireland on 4th August, 1922. That report was made by a committee [156] which was appointed on 10th June, 1922. A reliable cost of living index is very difficult to compile. I would like to point out to the House that there is no necessary relation between the items which constitute, and those that are required to provide a minimum standard of subsistence or comfort. The total cost at any date of the commodities covered by the index figure may be less than the cost of subsistence. In the case of the Irish cost of living index, I believe the total cost of the commodities covered by that index is, in fact, less than the total cost of subsistence.

[An Ceann Comhairle resumed the Chair.]

If the index is to show changes in the cost of living and exclude changes in the standard of living, the commodities covered must remain unchanged, not only as regards quality but as regards quantity, over the period covered by the index. The inquiry upon which the present index is partly based—I think I will be able to show later its relation to the British index and the basis of that index—is admitted by statisticans, by the Board of Trade and by every person who is familiar with the problem in England to be entirely unsatisfactory for computing or indicating the change in the cost of living of the industrial workers in England to which it was originally related. But in this particular case of our index I should like to say this, that the British index was compiled at a time when conditions were very stable in England, when it was possible to get that extended time basis during which there was only a slight variation in the cost of particular commodities covered by the index. But in our case the basic inquiry was set on foot between the 10th June, 1922, and the 4th August, 1922, at a period when the civil war had begun, when all transport was dislocated, when there was no possibility of having a necessary or an accurate inquiry into the cost of any article of subsistence in the Twenty-Six [157] Counties, and where, at any rate, there was certainly no such uniformity of price over the whole Twenty-Six Counties as would enable reliable statistics as to the cost of living to be compiled.

The Report of the Cost of Living Committee itself is an admission of that. They state on page 11 that no less than 5,000 copies of a certain form were despatched to national school teachers all over the country, accompanied by detailed instructions as to the method in which they were to be completed. Of those 5,000 forms only 308 were returned so complete that the Committee was able to use them for the purpose of its calculation. Now, I think the discrepancy between the number of forms sent out and the number of completed forms which were ultimately available, on the Committee's own admission, was so abnormal that it is of itself a sufficient proof that the cost of living index in its present form is a non-reliable barometer, a non-reliable guide as to how the cost of living varies from time to time within the Twenty-Six Counties.

There is one other difficulty in connection with the compilations of the cost of living index to which I would like to direct the attention of the House, because I think it has an important bearing on the matter. The value of the cost of living index depends entirely upon the degree to which the groups of commodities upon which it is based are truly representative of the actual living conditions in the country. Early attempts at compiling an index of this sort were based on comparatively few commodities of ordinary consumption—mainly food, heating and lighting. Afterwards it was found that these were unsatisfactory, and the index was widened to cover furniture, housing, clothing, and in some countries, taxation. Difficulties arose in connection with the computation of every one of these, but they arose particularly in connection with the computation of the cost of housing, and because of the wide [158] variation in the cost of housing throughout the Twenty-Six Counties, the method which was adopted in order to fix the proper loading for that item in the index was, I think, entirely unreliable. It was unreliable in view of the fact that civil servants are subject to transfer from place to place, that in many cases they are unable to make a permanent home, and that in very few cases are they able to live in houses which were governed by the Mortgage and Rent Restrictions Act. In many cases they are compelled to pay for their houses more than the standard rent, with the necessary increases permitted by that Act. Therefore, while it may be true to say that, so far as the general mass of industrial workers in Ireland are concerned throughout the towns in Ireland, the loading for the commodity, rent, to put it that way, was fairly accurate; nevertheless that loading had absolutely no relation to the conditions under which civil servants have to secure houses.

In addition to that, there is one other factor that I think the House ought to bear in mind when discussing this motion—and we are now discussing the reliability of the present cost of living index—and that is that in selecting commodities for the groups and determining their separate loading great difficulties are created by reason of the fact that consumption relative to the commodities is not the same for all sections of the community, and not the same for all individuals in any section or class. For instance, industrial workers generally spend a larger proportion of their earnings on food and a smaller proportion on miscellaneous items, such as education, travelling, housing, insurance, medical and dental advice, than do other classes, such as clerical workers, and the importance of that arises from the fact, according to the report of the Committee on this question, that the budgets which form the basis of the index were received from a varied class of households. That will be seen from the following list: Labourers, fishermen, messengers, servants, pilots, barmen, building contractors, carpenters, motor drivers. [159] The only class in the community from whom the attempt to secure a representative household budget was not made appears to have been civil servants, to whom the cost of living index [160] is applied in full force and rigour. I move the adjournment of the debate.

Debate adjourned.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until Thursday, June 11th, at 3 p.m.

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